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Unmet Emotional Needs

Unmet emotional needs can give rise to early maladaptive schemas, and other forms of maladaptive coping. This Unmet Emotional Needs handout forms part of the Psychology Tools Schema series. It is designed to help clients and therapists to work more effectively with common early maladaptive schemas (EMS).

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Introduction & Theoretical Background

A brief introduction to schema therapy

Schema therapy is an integrative therapy initially developed for treating complex, longstanding, and diffuse psychological difficulties. It combines cognitive, behavioral, attachment, gestalt, object relationships, constructivist, psychoanalytic, and neurobiological approaches within a unifying conceptual model (Young, 1990, 1999; Young et al., 2003). Additional interventions have since been outlined, such as EMDR (Young et al., 2002), mindfulness (van Vreeswijk et al., 2014), and body-focused methods (Briedis & Startup, 2020). Schema therapy expands on CBT by emphasizing the developmental origins of psychological problems, incorporating relational and experiential interventions, and targeting the maladaptive coping styles that perpetuate these difficulties (Young et al., 2003).

Early maladaptive schemas

Schema therapy posits that psychological difficulties stem from early maladaptive schemas (EMS) and peoples’ characteristic responses to them, referred to as ‘coping styles’. Schemas are enduring, foundational mental structures that play an essential role in cognitive processing, enabling humans to represent the complexities of the world (Rafaeli et al., 2016). By simplifying reality, they make the vast array of information we encounter manageable, enabling quick and automatic action. Schemas also act as shortcuts that help us reach conclusions without unnecessary processing. However, while these shortcuts are efficient, they can produce distorted interpretations of reality. For this reason, schemas can be adaptive or maladaptive, and positive or negative, depending on their output (Young et al., 2003). Research confirms the existence of both adaptive and maladaptive schemas, the former being associated with positive functions and adaptive behavioral dispositions (Louis et al., 2018).

In schema therapy, EMS are defined as negative, pervasive themes or patterns regarding oneself and one’s relationship with others that are dysfunctional and self-defeating. Structurally, EMS are believed to consist of thoughts, memories, emotions, bodily sensations, and the meanings ascribed to them (Van Genderen et al., 2012). Importantly, behavior is not a component of schemas, but a response to their activation. In other words, EMS activation results in schema-driven actions (Young et al., 2003).

Interactions between a child’s temperament, parenting, sociocultural context, and significant life experiences (e.g., traumatic events) can give rise to unmet emotional needs, which form the basis of EMS. EMS are usually accurate representations of these early environments and lead to responses that help the child survive and adapt to these contexts (Farrell et al., 2014; Young et al., 2003). However, EMS become dysfunctional when they are indiscriminately and repeatedly applied to later life experiences.

[EMS] become dysfunctional because… they render all new situations, even ones that are profoundly different from the toxic early experiences, similarly toxic (even when in reality they are not), and… lead the person to maintain particular types of [toxic] environments or relationships, even when they can exert influence or choice and create other kinds of experiences.

Rafaeli et al., 2011.

EMS are also remarkably obstinate and “fight for survival”. Young and colleagues (2003) suggest the durability of EMS partly stems from the need for ‘cognitive consistency’: people strive to maintain a stable view of themselves and the world, even if it is inaccurate and distressing. Moreover, EMS are often central to an individual’s sense of self, making the idea of a schematic “paradigm shift” extremely threatening (Beck et al., 2004; Young & Klokso, 1994):

Although [the client’s] schematic structure may be unrewarding and lonely, change means that [they] are in new territory... They are being asked not just to change a single chain of behaviors, or reframe a simple perception, but rather to give up who they are and how they have defined themselves for many years, and across many contexts.

Beck et al., 2004.

Finally, EMS are distinct from core beliefs (James et al., 2004). While some overlap exists in terms of their stability, emotional intensity, and overgeneralized nature, important differences include the following (Riso & McBride, 2007):

  • EMS go beyond cognitive content and include emotions, sensations, and memories. Accordingly, core beliefs represent the verbal-cognitive content or “narrative axioms” of EMS (e.g., “I’m different” in the social isolation EMS; Greenwald & Young, 1998; Rafaeli et al., 2016).
  • Schemas are not observable through introspection, although their content is accessible. In other words, core beliefs are easier to articulate, while EMS are more implicit and operate largely outside of awareness (Beck, 2015; Farrell & Shaw, 2012).
  • EMS are closely related to unmet childhood needs, although this might not be true for core beliefs.

Core emotional needs

So critical are core emotional needs to schema therapy, that it could be considered a ‘needs therapy’ (Brockman et al., 2023). The importance of human needs in health and well-being is often associated with Maslow’s (1943) ‘hierarchy of needs’. According to this theory of motivation, humans share five hierarchically organized classes of needs: physiological needs, security, belongingness, self-esteem, and self-actualization. Each level is prepotent in that higher order needs only emerge once those below have been satisfied (Mathes, 1981). Maslow hypothesized that the more these needs were frustrated, the greater psychological disturbance individuals experience. While Maslow’s theory has been criticized and reinterpreted by some (e.g., Neher, 1991), it has nonetheless proved influential in highlighting the role unmet needs play in psychopathology.

Needs are also centralized in attachment theory. Bowlby (1969, 1973) posited that all human infants, and some other species, seek proximity to important others (i.e., “attachment figures”) to meet their physical and emotional needs. Critically, children have a fundamental need for safety and security (i.e., access to a ‘safe haven’) before they can engage in other important developmental tasks, such as play and exploration (Bowlby, 1969; Feeney & Collins, 2019). Bowlby also observed that children detect the degree to which caregivers are attentive, sensitive, and responsive to their needs, particularly during times of distress. According to the sensitivity hypothesis, early experiences of care and the fulfillment of these needs shapes attachment-related behavior, with higher quality and more consistent care resulting in attachment security (versus attachment insecurity in response to disrupted child-caregiver relationships; Simpson et al., 2020).

Based on these observations and other literatures (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Deci & Ryan, 1985; Epstein, 1990; Greenberg et al., 1995), a variety of human needs have since been proposed, ranging from self-esteem and social belonging, to pleasure and popularity (e.g., Sheldon et al., 2001). However, it is debatable how essential, distinctive, and universal some of these are (i.e., whether they constitute basic emotional needs; Vansteenkiste et al., 2020).

Drawing on attachment theory and clinical observation, Young and colleagues’ (2003) propose that EMS and associated maladaptive coping arise from unmet core emotional needs, while need satisfaction leads to the development of healthy schemas.  While Young does not define what constitutes a basic need, others have conceptualized them as essential ‘psychological nutrients’ for growth, integrity, adjustment, and well-being (Ryan 1995). Moreover, they are believed to ‘core’ or ‘intrinsic’ (rather than being merely functional or instrumental) because their frustration results in impairment and/or harm to the individual (Assister & Noonan, 2007) (for a more comprehensive account of basic needs, see Baumeister & Leary, 1995). While these core needs are believed to be universal, it should be noted their relative strength may vary across individuals, developmental periods, and, potentially, across cultures (e.g., Hahn & Oishi, 2006). This provides some explanation for why individuals growing up in the same environment may develop different EMS.

Young and colleagues (2003) originally described 5 core emotional needs which have been elaborated (Lockwood & Perris, 2012; Lockwood & Samson, 2020):

  1. Secure attachments and connection to others. Children need relationships characterized by safety, stability, nurturance, affection, trustworthiness, mutual sharing, and acceptance. This requires attachment figures that are loyal, dependable, predictable, and unconditionally loving.
  2. Autonomy, competence, and sense of identity. Children need to cultivate a sense of mastery, capability, and self-reliance based on guidance, support, and direction from others. Furthermore, children need a sense of identity, direction, and an awareness of their personal boundaries. This requires attachment figures that are encouraging, nurture the child’s capabilities and preferences, and model competence and confidence.
  3. Freedom to express needs and emotions. Children need to express their needs, preferences, opinions, and emotional experiences without guilt, rejection, or fear of punishment. This requires attachment figures that are attentive, curious, validating, emotionally open, and containing.
  4. Spontaneity and play. Children need spontaneity, playfulness, and opportunities to have fun. This requires attachment figures that are playful, spontaneous, and value fun and relaxation.
  5. Realistic limits and self-control. Children need limits to forgo short-term pleasure, understand societal rules, and fulfill routines, responsibilities, and longer-term goals. Attachment figures encourage goal setting, follow through, responsibility to others, cooperation, and frustration tolerance to achieve this. Emotions and behaviors that are out of control, impulsive, inappropriate, or harmful are appropriately limited.

Additional core needs have been proposed, although they have not yet been fully incorporated into the schema therapy model. They include:

  • Fairness. The need for equity is believed to play an important role in affiliation, cooperation, and mastery. Arntz and colleagues (2021) suggest that frustration of this need is likely to give rise to an ‘unfairness’ EMS, manifest as indignation, powerlessness, and/or victimization in the face of perceived injustices.
  • Self-coherence. People have a need for internal consistency, stability, and self-identity. Arntz and colleagues (2021) suggest that frustration of this need may give rise to a ‘lack of coherent identity’ EMS (e.g., non-integration or dissociated parts of the self) and/or a ‘lack of a meaningful world’ EMS (e.g., disconnection from the world). Manifestations of these EMS include confusion, estrangement, or existential anxiety.
  • Connection to nature or nature relatedness. People flourish when they are connected to nature – their primary source of physiological nourishment – and the universe (O’Sheedy, 2021; Windhorst & Williams, 2015). Brockman and colleagues (2023) suggest that frustration of this need is likely to give rise to a ‘lack of connectedness’ EMS, manifesting as excessive materialism, consumerism, or exploitation of nature.
  • Self-esteem. Children need to appreciate and value themselves, and to have self-respect (Loose et al., 2020).
  • Novelty and change. The need for novelty, excitement, and stimulation is believed to play a role in motivated behavior, growth, and continued progress (Flanagan, 2010).
  • Self-comprehension. People need self-awareness and self-knowledge to succeed in their relationships and the world (Flanagan, 2010).
  • Meaning. People have a need for self-realization and meaning in life (Meier, 2019).

Other needs may also play an important role in children’s development and schema formation. For instance, fostering children’s creativity is associated with the capacity to discover, innovate, adapt, solve problems, and respond flexibly (e.g., Kudryavtsev, 2011).

Sources of unmet emotional needs

Given that core needs initially relate to the child’s primary attachments, difficulties within the nuclear family are often the principal source of EMS (Rafaeli et al., 2011). Like Bowlby (1969), Young acknowledged that attachment needs were of primary importance for the developing child, laying the foundation for the satisfaction of other needs (Brockman et al., 2023). However, as children mature, needs arising other arenas such as school and the wider community become important (e.g., stable friendships, peer group acceptance, etc.). While unmet needs in these later contexts can lead to EMS, schemas emerging in adolescence are usually less pervasive (Young et al., 2003). EMS can also develop in later life (such as in response to deeply disturbing events), although this is much less common (Louis et al., 2018).

Early life experiences

Young and colleagues (2003) identify 4 childhood experiences that contribute to the development of EMS:

  1. Toxic withholding. The child is given too little of what they need (e.g., insufficient attention, affection, stability, etc.).
  2. Toxic excess. The child is given too much of what they need (e.g., they are over-indulged, overprotected, granted excessive freedoms, etc.).
  3. Traumatization. The child is harmed, victimized, or humiliated (e.g., parental abuse, bullying, discrimination, etc.).
  4. Selective internalization. The child internalizes maladaptive attitudes that are modeled by a significant other (e.g., perfectionism, pessimism, etc.).

Research confirms that unmet needs during early life contribute to EMS formation. For instance, a 15-year longitudinal study found that unmet childhood needs for secure attachment contributed to the development of several maladaptive schemas in later life (Simard et al., 2011). Studies have also reported robust associations between EMS and toxic childhood experiences, including early maltreatment and neglect (May et al., 2020; Pilkington et al., 2021), problematic parenting styles (e.g., Bach et al., 2018; Bruysters & Pilkington, 2022), and other traumatic events (Noor & Dildar, 2021; Wells & Hackmann, 1993). In addition, schemas have been shown to mediate the relationship between unmet needs and the emergence of psychopathology, as the schema model would predict (Boyda et al., 2018; Kaya & Aydin, 2021; Thimm, 2010). Finally, evidence has been found for the intergenerational transmission of EMS (Sundag et al., 2018).

Emotional temperament

Temperament refers to enduring differences in children’s behavioral style and reactivity (Zentner & Bates, 2008). Temperament can play an important role in EMS formation by influencing parenting styles, which may in turn frustrate the child’s needs. Research is consistent with this (e.g., Eisenberg et al., 1999; Kiff et al., 2011; Pekdoğan & Mehmet, 2022). For example:

  • Irritable children may elicit punitive parenting, leading to increased anger.
  • Fearful children may elicit protective parenting, leading to increased anxiety.
  • Impulsive children may elicit controlling parenting, increasing impulsivity.

Moreover, children are believed to have a ‘differential susceptibility’ to their childhood environments and experiences (Belsky, 2013). For example, reactive children are more likely to flounder in response to poor parenting. This explains why some individuals develop EMS in the absence of severe trauma (Lockwood & Perris, 2012).

Developmental events and transitions

As children mature, emotional needs arise in new arenas such as school and the wider community (e.g., stable friendships, academic success, etc.). Research indicates that toxic experiences and associated unmet needs in these areas can contribute to EMS formation, such as bullying (e.g., Alba et al., 2018). However, Young and colleagues (2003) suggest schemas emerging in later development tend to be less pervasive than those rooted in early childhood experiences. EMS can also develop in later life (such as in response to deeply disturbing events), although this is much less common (Louis et al., 2018).

Unmet emotional needs and schema domains

Young (1990) initially described 15 EMS, which were later expanded to include 18 schemas (Young et al., 2003). They were subsequently clustered into 5 hypothetical ‘schema domains’ corresponding to specific unmet emotional needs: disconnection and rejection, impaired autonomy and performance, impaired limits, other-directedness, overvigiliance and inhibition (Young et al., 2003). However, subsequent research suggests that the 4-domain structure that follows is more parsimonious (Bach et al., 2018; Hoffart et al., 2005; Mącik & Mącik, 2022).

Domain 1: Disconnection and rejection

EMS in this domain are associated with unmet needs relating to secure attachments and connect to others. They include defectiveness/shame, emotional deprivation, emotional inhibition, mistrust/abuse, pessimism, and social isolation. These EMS are linked by the expectation that one’s needs for connection, acceptance, belonging, self-expression, and spontaneity will not be met.

Childhood environments associated with this schema domain tend to be abusive, emotionally barren, or lonely. Individuals may have experienced critical, withholding, and/or emotionally detached parenting and/or peer group interactions characterized by difference, estrangement, or rejection.

Domain 2: Impaired autonomy and performance

EMS in this domain are associated with unmet needs related to personal autonomy, competence, and identity. They include abandonment, dependence/incompetence, enmeshment, failure to achieve, subjugation, and vulnerability to harm or illness. These EMS are linked by the expectation that one cannot function independently, rely on others, perform successfully, or freely express needs or feelings. Childhood environments associated with this schema domain tend to be overprotective, controlling, enmeshed, danger-orientated, or lacked rewards. Individuals may have experienced parenting that is intrusive, undermining, anxious, emotionally-invalidating, unrewarding, or unstable. Alternatively, individuals may have received little help or guidance from others (Young, 1999). A comparative lack of success or competence may have characterized peer group interactions.

Domain 3: Excessive responsibility and standards

EMS in this domain are associated with unmet needs relating to balanced expectations and self-compassion. They include punitiveness, self-sacrifice, and unrelenting standards. These EMS are linked by self-criticism, guilt, and adherence to strict standards and expectations (e.g., around one’s performance or responsibility to others), often at the expense of personal needs (e.g., joy and rest). Childhood environments associated with this domain may be strict, demanding, excessively rule-orientated, or emphasized caring for others. Individuals may have experienced parenting that is perfectionistic, expectant, anxious (e.g., parental concerns about mistakes), stoic, and at times punitive or guilt-inducing.

Domain 4: Impaired limits

EMS in this domain are associated with unmet needs related to self-control and limit-setting. They include approval-/admiration-seeking, entitlement, and insufficient self-control. These EMS are linked by difficulties pursuing long-term goals, setting internal limits, and respecting the rights of others. Childhood environments associated with this schema domain tend to be permissive, indulgent, haughty, or lacked boundaries. Individuals are likely to have experienced parenting that was conditional, narcissistic, uninvolved, or did not emphasize discipline or reciprocal cooperation.

Therapist Guidance

"Everyone is born with core emotional needs, like the need to feel safe and accepted. Psychologists believe that if these core needs are not met when we are young, or if they are met inconsistently, we develop negative schemas. Can we explore how this might apply to you?"

  • "How were your core needs responded to as a child? How well were they met?"
  • "How were your needs responded to as an adolescent? How well were they met?"
  • "Which of your needs weren’t met or were met inconsistently? What was missing?"
  • "Were any of your needs met too much or too intensely?"
  • "How did you cope with your unmet needs as a child?"
  • "How did you cope with your unmet needs as an adolescent?"
  • "Do any memories or images come to mind as you think about your unmet needs?"
  • "Which schemas might be linked to your unmet needs?"
  • "Can you see a link between your unmet needs and your current difficulties?"

References And Further Reading

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  • Arntz, A., Rijkeboer, M., Chan, E., Fassbinder, E., Karaosmanoglu, A., Lee, C. W., & Panzeri, M. (2021). Towards a reformulated theory underlying schema therapy: Position paper of an international workgroup. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 45, 1007-1020. DOI: 10.1007/s10608-021-10209-5.
  • Assiter, A., & Noonan, J. (2007). Human needs: A Realist Perspective. Journal of Critical Realism, 6, 173-198. DOI: 10.1558/jocr.v6i2.173.
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